Summary of "The Timing of Ripeness and the Ripeness of Timing"

Summary of

The Timing of Ripeness and the Ripeness of Timing

By Jeffrey Z. Rubin

This Article Summary written by: Cosima Krueger, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Jeffrey Z. Rubin, "The Timing of Ripeness and the Ripeness of Timing," in Timing the De-Escalation of International Conflicts, (Ed.) Louis Kriesberg & Stuart J. Thorson, (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1991), pp. 237-246.

The author says that although the concepts of "timing" and "ripeness" are crucial to the successful de-escalation of international conflicts, these concepts are sometimes dismissed by social scientists because of their highly subjective nature. He defines timing as the importance of doing things in one sequence or at one time rather than another. He defines ripeness as "the right time" (to do something).

He says that problems can be caused both by moving too soon and by moving too late to de-escalate conflicts. Moving too soon can be a problem when there is not yet sufficient motivation by either party to negotiate. Moving too late can be a problem when parties are already highly motivated to stick to extreme, well-publicized, entrenched positions, often engineered by Track One (government-to-government) diplomats. Thus, there are two types of timing errors: (1) not attempting de-escalation when the timing is right, and (2) attempting de-escalation when the timing is not right.

However, the author believes that most conflicts usually have multiple ripe moments rather than only one, and that there is no such thing as a wrong time to attempt de-escalation. This is because the life cycles of most conflicts are non-linear in terms of intensity. Frequent changes in conflict intensity create multiple ripe moments for involvement.

The author cautions against what he calls the delusion of the "right" moment. He says that the concept of ripeness can also be misused as an excuse for procrastination. For example, many people who were opposed to the military junta in Argentina continued supporting it for a long time because they felt powerless to overthrow it. They wanted to wait to make a move until they felt that had more power. The author points out that this kind of procrastination often leads to even more procrastination, making intervention much more difficult the longer nothing is done.

The concept of a single ripe moment, or single window of opportunity, can also be used as a threat to induce immediate action: Act now or you'll never get another chance. This has been a common tactic used by those involved in conflicts in the Middle-East.

Thus the concept of the "right" or "ripe" moment can be used as both a stratagem to force others into action and as a rationalization for inaction. Because the concept of timing is too often used as an excuse to wait passively for ripeness, the author argues that analysts and practitioners should, instead, look for ways to create ripeness.

The author notes that ripeness can be created in several ways. First, intermediaries in positions of greater power can use their power to create negative incentives ("sticks") or positive incentives ("carrots") to negotiated settlements. The aim here is to create "hurting stalemates" by making impasses or deadlocks so miserable that action is preferable to the status quo. These carrots and sticks can take the form of economic aid, military aid, or aid in the form of good ideas, particularly ideas which shift the focus of conflict away from particular demands (or positions) and toward the reasons behind these demands (or underlying interests).

Another way of creating ripeness is to engage in inaction until the delay costs and/or pain levels of the parties to the conflict become so unbearable that negotiation becomes a more attractive option.

In some kinds of conflicts ripeness can be created by finding creative ways to increase the size of the "pieces of pie" that are being fought over. Not all conflicts lend themselves to this type of solution, however, and finding new pies or larger pieces of pie is sometimes difficult to do without the assistance of a third party. In some cases these pieces of pie take the form of tangibles such as land or natural resources. In other cases these pieces of pie take the form of intangibles such as proposals which reframe the conflict in a way that allows one or both sides to relinquish highly-publicized, entrenched positions via the introduction of face-saving "decommiting formulas."

Another, less commonly used method of creating ripeness is by extracting "small, constructive, and irreversible commitments" via unilateral offers of some concession coupled with a request for reciprocal offers from the opponent. According to the author, a sustained series of such small commitments can eventually lead both sides to become so deeply invested in the de-escalation process that they feel unable to back out of it.

Finally, ripeness can be created by the judicious introduction of third parties who may introduce decommitment formulas and/or rewards (carrots) and punishments (sticks). The author notes that an invitation of third party intervention is often a signal of ripeness in and of itself. However, there are three dangers of third party intervention. First, third parties may be incompetent. Second, they may have self-serving hidden agendas. Third, the introduction of third parties may remove the initiative for resolution from the parties themselves. For a settlement to be lasting, the parties themselves must feel that they "own" it. They will not feel a sense of ownership for a settlement if they themselves were not the ones primarily responsible for creating it.

The author says that although ripeness is a subjective experience that can be experienced differently by different parties, this does not invalidate it as a concept. He says that it is important to distinguish between "created" ripeness and "inherent or naturally occurring" ripeness. He says that there are seven contextual conditions that determine the naturally occurring ripeness of a conflict. These are:

1. The presence of internal unity of perspectives and goals within intranational or intraorganizational units.

2. Positive or negative developments in the international environment which could lead to favorable negotiating conditions.

3. Rough parity between parties in terms of power which could leading to favorable conditions for a hurting stalemate.

4. Either very strong or very weak political leadership which could lead to the possibility of compromise.

5. Good luck, defined as the absence of untoward events such as serious human rights violations.

6. Requitement, defined as the reciprocation of initiatives by the other side (or the expectation thereof).

7. Knowledge by disputants of what to omit and what to include in deliberations, so that negotiations can proceed without getting unnecessarily bogged down on particular issues.